Ah there is nothing quite like a room with well-crafted wood tables and chairs surrounded by shelves full of leather-bound books, plat maps and assorted genealogy resources. A researcher’s paradise! The Elwyn B. Robinson Department of Special Collections at the Chester Fritz library is such a place. Let’s look!
Located on the campus of the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks, North Dakota, this collection contains many volumes related to genealogy. For those of you with Norwegian roots, there is a large collection of the farm books of Norway in the Arne G. Brekke Bygdebok Collection. We’re going to focus on these because they are a great source for clues and information when researching your family from Norway.
As with all research, preparing ahead of time is necessary. Because the number of volumes, unless you have unlimited time, you’ll at least need to have an idea of where your family came from so you can narrow your research to the correct area. Here’s what the main page of the collection looks like:
You have a few ways to search to see what books are in the collection. You can filter by the municipality (like our counties) or alphabetically or by a word search. Let’s do an example search using the municipality of Sigdal.
You can now see the Sigdal books in their collection as well as the call numbers. Under the notes’ column, if you’ve found the farm name already, you can see which of the volumes include that farm name. Or perhaps you have found that there are two farms in Sigdal that share the same name. You can look at both volumes to determine which one is where your ancestor lived.
If you do not have a farm name, it will be challenging to find your family—even if you have the municipality such as Sigdal. Some of the books are indexed farms and people. Others only have a table of contents showing the major farms. Before you go to use these books, I would recommend spending time finding your family in the 1801 and/or 1865 Norway census records. These have the names of the farms beside the family information. You may also find references to the region they are from by looking at local histories, church records and obituaries in America. Doing this preparation will save you time and prevent you (hopefully) from searching in the wrong area of Norway.
What do you find in these books? They vary greatly depending on the local historians of the municipality. Some of the best I’ve seen include a brief biography related to the farm—who owned it when and for how long plus a who they married and when, all their children with birth and death dates and their spouse information. Sometimes legal events related to the land are included or brief stories. And if someone went to America, they may give the date or note “in America” if this was the ancestor who traveled to America and did not die in Norway. And the flip side, some of these books do not have details about a family but you may find the name of your ancestor in a brief sentence to confirm that you have found the right farm and area. It can be challenging to translate the information from Norwegian (yes, they are in Norwegian) because online translation tools are not able to recognize some of the dialect.
Don’t forget about your female ancestors! We tend to focus on the paternal side because there are often more records available. I love Norwegian records because the women retain their maiden names—even in the census records. If you find the husband in the Bygdebok, they often list their wife’s name and where she was from—this is key for you to extend the wife’s ancestry. Go look at that farm to see if you can find her father, siblings and perhaps grandparents. In a recent research expedition, a family was able to go back generations on their female ancestor because her father had a large farm and his ancestors were listed. If we had only focused on the paternal line, we would have missed this wealth of information.
These books are wonderful resources. Once you find your family, use the dates and information to locate the birth, marriage and death records in the online digital archives to further confirm your family data. Ah if only these wonderful books were available for my German and Irish research!
Now for the good and bad news. The special collection area will be open until September 23rd. After that date there is little or limited access for approximately 8 weeks because the Chester Fritz Library is being remodeled, including this collection area. It will be great when it is open again and you still have a couple of weeks to check out the collection before their remodel. I hope you have a great time researching in this stellar collection. Have fun!
With a lifelong passion for genealogy and history, the author enjoys the opportunity to share genealogy tidbits, inspiring others to research and write their family story.